The dangers of medical misinformation highlighted in new book

  • Date

    Mon 18 Nov 19

Anna di Ronco

A new book exposes the potential harm caused by bogus health practices and false medical claims.

From anti-vaxxers, who some believe are responsible for the dramatic decline in vaccination rates, to those who peddle lifestyle drugs, with spurious claims such as curing baldness, the authors believe non-science-based practices and medical misinformation are now a huge social problem which could have devastating consequences for our health and wellbeing.

In their book criminologists Dr Anita Lavorgna, from the University of Southampton and Dr Anna Di Ronco, from the University of Essex bring together expert opinion from a range of perspectives – medical, legal, psychological and social – to examine the complex harms associated with advice and treatments which are not backed by science. 

Dr Di Ronco, said: “While some complementary and alternative medicines might be beneficial to an individual’s physical, psychological and spiritual needs, many forms of non-science-based treatments and approaches can be very dangerous.

“The internet and social media are useful sources of health-related information and people often rely on them to get advice about illnesses and potential treatments, but these platforms are not just used by medical professionals – they are also used by campaign groups, who without any scientific training, offer potentially dangerous advice which could have serious consequences for anyone who follows it.

“In this book we look at the challenges, implications and potential remedies to the spread of fraudulent information which has serious repercussions both on the health of people and in their confidence in science and the medical profession.”

Dr Lavorgna added: “The propagation of health practices that are not based on scientific evidence and yet are accepted, or even applauded, by many is deeply connected to the crisis of public trust in expert knowledge we are currently experiencing, be it on climate change or the management of migration flows.

“Through our book we want to show the risk this poses and also the complexity and fascination of different types of non-science-based health practices who share the fact that harm has been caused to people by their use.”

The book covers a range of topics including different types of non-science-based treatments, the psychological processes underlying the denial of science-based medical practices, the online promotion of misleading and harmful information and the role of journalism in exposing pseudomedicine.

Dr Di Ronco and Dr James Allen-Robertson, from Essex, looked at the role of social media - carrying out an in-depth study of Tweets posted by people on both sides of the vaccination debate in Italy, where medical knowledge among the general public is deemed to be low.

They found that instead of promoting an exchange of ideas to improve people’s understanding of different perspectives, social media sites and online forums simply gave users a platform to re-iterate their own, potentially ill-informed, views.

“We found there was little to no interaction between the two groups of pro and anti-vaxxers, and they weren’t even listening to each other. We have got to get away from the idea that social media informs people, in reality it just seems to be a channel for people to vent their frustrations. 

“We would argue that science advocates and medical professionals need to get better at communicating, including on social media. otherwise people who are hesitant towards vaccines will continue to ignore them,” added Dr Di Ronco.

Medical misinformation and social harm in non-science based health practices has just been published by Routledge.